As I begin this post, one day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, my
attention is many places at once. Every few minutes I click over to my email, wondering what decision my son’s college has made about staying open or going online. His spring semester, senior year was supposed to be memorable, but not quite this way. Not yet finding a message from the college, I am pulled to the New York Times website for latest updates on the virus and the tumbling markets. Despite knowing better, I check to see how our retirement accounts are faring. Then I check the Johns Hopkins coronavirus map. A text chain with friends periodically chimes as friends with children who are out of the country update us on their predicaments and plans. In class this morning, my students and I went through our new ritual of wiping down every surface in the room before jumping into the day. And before I left, I set up electronic classes in Google classroom and made sure all my students had a textbook to leave at home. In short, it’s been an unusual and disconcerting day.
And so it is fitting that I am also thinking about a book I just finished reading, by Dr. Stuart Shanker, called
Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life. The stressful scenarios that Dr. Shanker describes and likely had in mind as he wrote were not the ones I described above. But it doesn’t really matter, because the book is about better understanding responses to stress (ours and our children’s or students’) and building capacities of self-regulation.
Early in the book, Dr. Shanker stresses the difference between self-regulation and self-control. He says,
“Self-control is about inhibiting impulses; self-regulation is about identifying the causes and reducing the intensity of impulses, and, when necessary, having the energy to resist. This distinction has not been clearly understood; indeed the two are often conflated. Self-regulation is not only fundamentally different from self-control: It is what makes acts of self-control possible – or, as often happens, unnecessary.”
Shanker lays out five steps in the pursuit of self-regulation that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve managed my own uncertainty and anxiety over the past several days:
Read the signs. Reframe the behavior. Too often, children and students are characterized as “difficult” or “troublemakers” when they are really in the midst of freeze, flight, or fight. When the emotion center of the brain takes over, we – all of us - are simply unable to access our highest capacities. But, as Shanker notes, “A dramatic change results when we start to think in terms of behavior as a reflection of self-regulation in response to stress, arousal, and energy levels, rather than in terms of self-control and compliance.” Suddenly, kids aren’t willfully misbehaving. Instead, they may be experiencing a stressor that is short-circuiting their higher order thinking and capacities -- and they may need our help getting back to the calm, attentive arousal state that brings the pre-frontal cortex back online.
Identify the stressors. Stressors can have roots in any (or all) of five domains – biological, emotional, cognitive, social, or prosocial – and they’re different for everyone. My own son had a hard time recognizing when he was hungry and nearly all of his emotional meltdowns at least partly featured a need for food that he didn’t recognize himself. That’s part of the biological domain. Another child might struggle to master (and become exhausted by) social demands or become utterly discombobulated by noise or other sensory inputs. Still other children tend toward hypo-arousal and need sensory stimulation to rev up their engines.
Reduce the stress. After figuring out our own or a child’s specific stressors, the next step is to find ways to reduce the stress. For a period of time, a child might need help even recognizing what they are feeling and how to name it. Several times today, I’ve had to purposely bring my awareness back to my breathing and body when I’ve realized that continuously checking for news and updates has left me depleted. As Shanker notes, “Self-Reg starts with how well we can identify and reduce our own stressors and how well we can stay calm and attentive when we’re interacting with a child.”
And just to be clear, reducing stressors in a child’s environment is not “catering” to a child’s whims. A child whose self-regulation systems have gone haywire cannot possibly absorb our lessons on grit, rationality, and perseverance. Trying to impart those lessons in the wrong moments will inevitably lead to frustration (and not infrequently leads to the adult also becoming dysregulated).
Reflect. We need to understand what causes us to leave a state of calm attentiveness, and with practice our children and students need to be able to figure out for themselves what causes them to struggle. (It’s important to note, though, that reflection often can’t happen in the moment. In the midst of an emotional episode, the name of the game is coming back to calmness; and in order to help them with that, the name of the game is leaning into relationships.)
Respond. Figure out what helps you calm, rest, and recover. This one is pretty straight-forward and critically important in times like these. We need to do more of the things that help us feel calm and attentive so that we can refill our tanks. (I for one, plan to be instituting a one or two-time per day checking of the news headlines.)
Since beginning this post less than a week ago, my son’s college announced that online learning will begin this week for the duration of the year, and millions of school children are out of class for what might be three weeks or three months. More than six million people in the Bay Area are now required to stay home, and millions of New Yorkers are being warned that the same orders might be true for them in a day or two. It’s uncharted territory and for many children and families this will be an incredibly stressful time.
For those with some time to read Self-Reg, or visit Dr. Shanker’s website where there are many free resources, I’d highly recommend it. But if you’re in any doubt about how to proceed, be good to yourself and to the people around you. Lean into relationship.